Saturday, November 03, 2007

1 Chron 12:32 report, 50: Factors in opening hearts to Jesus

For the past several days, I have been intending to report on factors on opening hearts to Jesus, as reported in a recent CT article; as a part of how we should respond to the trends, challenges and opportunities of our times.

This is especially important just now, given the sort of polemical exchanges with Islamist spokesmen that have been going on in recent days on national television in Jamaica.

For, plainly, men like Mr Trevor William Forest, aka Sheik Abdullah El Faisal, are setting out to create the false but persuasive perception that the Gospel message is a fraud perpetrated by dishonest clerics, and indeed that it was pushed down our ancestors' throats oppressively (and even sadistically), thus creating a hostile atmosphere in which people may simply become unable to hear the words of the Gospel message.

Also, since -- as Aristotle so aptly warned -- our judgements when we are pained and hostile are very different from those we make when we are pleased and friendly, we must not only address rebuttal points on major Islamist polemical claims [cf. also, e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here and here] and deal with wider apologetics issues tied to Islam, and to more general apologetics issues, and for that matter worldview-level concerns including scientific ones, but we must attend as well to the wider context of spiritual, personal and situational factors that promote a positive response to the gospel.

So, even though of course nowadays such things are often viewed by post-/ultra- moderns as very politically incorrect, or even "bigoted" or "hateful," it is in fact important and an act of love to study how to help people out of the swirling pain and personal and spiritual despair, bondage and darkness they suffer, towards light and true peace with God (thus also with themselves and others) and to liberty.

To do this, let us first excerpt Woodberry, Shubin and Marks, starting with the big picture on patterns of growth, interaction and conversion in the world's two leading religions:
. . . perhaps counterintuitively, the number of new Christians each year outstrips the number of new Muslims, even though the annual growth rate is higher for Muslims (1.81 percent) than for Christians (1.23 percent). Over the last century, Christians have grown at a slower rate than have Muslims, with Muslims increasing from 12 percent to 21 percent of the global population during that time. But this is hardly surprising. Christianity has more total followers than Islam. More people need to become Christians annually simply to remain at roughly a third of the world population. Muslims are increasing in sub-Saharan Africa and among African Americans by conversion, but elsewhere the growth is mostly by birth or immigration. The major growth for Protestants, especially evangelicals and Pentecostals, has been by conversion.
This article focuses on a specific question in this context: "what attracts Muslims to follow Jesus?" It then lays out the method used to find out:
Between 1991 and 2007, about 750 Muslims who have decided to follow Christ filled out an extensive questionnaire on that basic question. The respondents—from 30 countries and 50 ethnic groups—represent every major region of the Muslim world . . . participants ranked the relative importance of different influences and whether they occurred before, at the time of, or after their decision to follow Christ. While the survey, prepared at Fuller Theological Seminary's School of Intercultural Studies, does not claim scientific precision, it provides a glimpse into some of the key means the Spirit of God is using to open Muslim hearts to the gospel.
The resulting rather revealing factors and reasons can be excerpted, and enumerated for convenience:
[1] respondents ranked the lifestyle of Christians as the most important influence in their decision to follow Christ . . . .

[2] Many Muslims who faced violence at the hands of other Muslims did not see it in the Christians they knew (regrettably, of course, Christians have been guilty of interethnic strife elsewhere). Muslim-on-Muslim violence has led to considerable disillusionment for many Muslims . . . .

[3] The next most important influence was the power of God in answered prayers and healing. Like most of the factors that former Muslims list, experiences of God's supernatural intervention often increase after Muslims decide to follow Christ . . . .

[4] Closely related was the finding that some noted deliverance from demonic power as another reason they were attracted to Jesus. After all, he is the healing prophet in the Qur'an and has power over demons in the Gospels . . . . It helps to note that a third of the 750-person sample were folk Muslims, with a characteristic concern for power and blessings. It is also worth noting that the Jesus portrayed in the Qur'an is a prophet who heals lepers and the blind and raises the dead. Not surprisingly, many Muslims find him attractive.

[5] Of course, power and blessings do not constitute the final word for Muslims. The Bible also offers a theology of suffering, and many Muslims who follow Christ find that their faith is strengthened through trials.

[6] The third biggest influence listed by respondents was dissatisfaction with the type of Islam they had experienced. They expressed unhappiness with the Qur'an, which they perceive as emphasizing God's punishment more than his love (although the Qur'an says he loves those who love him [3:31])

[7] As for Islam's requirement that liturgical prayer should be in Arabic, a Javanese man asked, "Doesn't an all-knowing God know Indonesian?"

[8] Others criticized folk Islam's use of amulets and praying at the graves of dead saints.

[9] Some respondents decried Islamic militancy and the imposition of Islamic law, which they said is not able to transform hearts and society. This disillusionment is broad in the Muslim world.

[10] As with Paul and Cornelius in Acts, visions and dreams played a role in the conversion of many. More than one in four respondents, 27 percent, noted dreams and visions before their decision for Christ, 40 percent at the time of conversion, and 45 percent afterward.

[11] Many Muslims view dreams as links between the seen and unseen worlds, and pre-conversion visions and dreams often lead Muslims to consult a Christian or the Bible. Frequently a person in the vision, understood to be Jesus, radiates light or wears white (one respondent, though, said Jesus appeared in green, a color sometimes associated with Islamic holy persons).

[12] The gospel message, especially its assurance of salvation and forgiveness, is also a significant attraction to Muslims. The Qur'an states that "those who repent and believe, and work righteousness … will enter paradise" (19:60). Yet it also states that God forgives whom he wills and punishes whom he wills (2:284), so Muslims do not have certainty of salvation.

[13] One Indonesian woman spoke of her fear, based on a tradition attributed to Muhammad, that the bridge over hell to paradise is as thin as a hair. An Egyptian said he was attracted to Christian faith because it preaches that people can be sure of their acceptance by God.

[14] Next in attraction for Muslims is the spiritual truth in the Bible. The Qur'an attests that the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospel (commonly understood as the New Testament) are from God. Even though Muslims are generally taught that these writings became corrupted, they often find them compelling reading and discover truth that they conclude must be from God . . . The Sermon on the Mount helped convince a Lebanese Muslim that he should follow the one who taught and exemplified these values.

[15] Respondents were also attracted by the Bible's teaching about the love of God. In the Qur'an, although God loves those who love him, his love is conditional. He does not love those who reject faith (3:31-32). There is nothing in the Qur'an like, "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:10), or, "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8).

[16] Particularly attractive to Muslims is the love expressed through the life and teachings of Jesus. The Qur'an already calls him faultless (19:19). Many Muslims are attracted to him by his depiction in the Qur'an and then go to the Gospels to find out more.

[17] Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Bangladeshis, and Algerians became more responsive after enduring Muslim political turmoil or attempts to impose Islamic law.

[18] Christian relief and development agencies try hard to guard against spiritually misusing their position as providers of desperately needed goods and services. But natural disasters in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Sahel region inevitably put Muslims in contact with Christians trying to follow Jesus. It is no surprise that some of these Muslims also choose to follow Christ. [Cf discussion and declaration here, p. 5.]

[19] In many places, apostasy is tantamount to rejecting family, religion, culture, ethnicity, and nationality. Thus, many Muslim converts face persecution from family, police, or militants . . . . But Muslim converts to Christ know that such persecution can, in a mysterious way, be part of the best of times. Jesus, in fact, said it was a blessing.
All the above can be boiled down: the Gospel's truth, consistently lived in love and eloquently expressed in holy, beautiful, caring spiritual power.

So, while the specific case just excerpted on is concerning Muslims, the factors identified obviously relate to many other cases and contexts all across our region and world. Also, while it is important to effectively address commonly encountered issues, objections and arguments against the gospel, we must never forget the context in which such must happen: the truth, taught and lived in godly manifestations of love, power and purity.

This both inspires and shames me; calling me yet again to the four R's of revival and reformation: repentance, renewal of mind and life through the truth in love, revival proper as seasons of refreshing are poured out from on High, reformation as the impact of revival spills over into society at large.

Therefore, let us hear again St Peter's exhortation:
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. [1 Peter 3:15 - 16.]
So also, let us again ponder: Why not now, why not here, why not us? END

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